Thursday , October 19 2017
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From Barry Johnson : Editor-at-Large

Forgive me, but I have occasionally thought, in the past, that the programming part of the artistic director’s job was easy as pie. Child’s play, really. You spend a couple of days on Twitter or Facebook, take the temperature of the culture, riffle through the cultural material at your disposal, and choose something that offers consolation, diversion, or explanation to your audience—depending on what temperature (and other symptoms) the culture was manifesting. And if you couldn’t find anything that fit the budget or seemed truly germane, you could commission something affordable and appropriate.

It wouldn’t really matter if you offered classical verities when some good, old-fashioned, slapstick comedy might do better, as long as you could make the case for those verities in the curtain speech and the advertisements.

In practice, I fear I’d veer reflexively toward comedy. In bad times, everyone needs a laugh, and in good times, they are relaxed enough to pass beyond the twitter or the snort and reach the belly laugh. A laughing audience is always good for business and maybe not so prone the next day to enter the public arena with a snarl at the ready—or maybe something worse.

These days, I’m not envying the artistic director. Not a bit. Not when we in the audience are constantly checking our devices for the latest twist in the Russia scandal. Or the flood in Houston (or Niger or Mumbai). Or the giant icebergs breaking off of Antarctica. Or the latest neo-Nazi outrage against anyone who isn’t a neo-Nazi. Or rumors of war with North Korea, Iran, or… NATO? Really? It’s been that way all summer. And before that. We’re not in a laughing mood, are we? And we don’t seem ready for verities, either, I’m afraid. Sleep aids and antidepressants, maybe, but not the wisdom of Marcus Aurelius.

“Waste no more time arguing about what a good [person] should be. Be one.”

But, Marcus, shouldn’t a good person argue with the ethically depraved in an attempt to lead them to a more balanced state? Isn’t that why Twitter was invented? Now, we can argue with 50 people at the same time, if not 500, 5000, 50,000… I worry about the verities sometimes.

Beneath the rancid headlines streaming from a toxic environment, a set of moral and social problems lurk. They elude our politics, which these days make them worse, it seems, but they don’t elude our arts. Not even questions about what makes a person good. Our books, plays, art exhibitions, concerts, dances, films—they often address the question of goodness. What does a good man do? Maybe live a life a lot like the one architect John Yeon lived, which the Portland Art Museum’s show this summer brought back to life.

Theater is perfect for posing and engaging those moral dilemmas (unlike Hollywood, which defaults to “revenge” as the answer for everything). I’m looking over the next couple of months of theater opening in the city, and though I doubt they will “solve” our national problems, I’m confident they will sharpen our moral wits. Theater does that in the process of absorbing our attention. Maybe you aren’t laughing or nodding sagely at the end, but you are better able to find the stuff that matters in the contentious times that engulf us and discard the chaff and empty rhetoric.

Maybe a quick rundown of a few of the meaty fall’s shows that you’ll be able to share with family members with whom you don’t dare talk politics?

An Octoroon, Artists Repertory Theatre: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ dark comedy (or is it a comic tragedy?) skewers and mourns the American experience with slavery and race. Through October 1, 2017.

Fun Home, Portland Center Stage at the Armory: Based on a graphic autobiography by Alison Bechdel, this play explores the coming of age of young woman, who gradually comes to understand her sexual preferences and some other family dynamics. September 16–October 22, 2017.

The Events, Third Rail Repertory Theatre: David Greig’s play is perfect for this column—how the survivor of a mass shooting deals with the hate while receiving consolation from a community choir. October 27–November 18, 2017.

Water by the Spoonful and The Happiest Song Plays Last, Profile Theatre: Playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes has a written a series of plays inspired by the experience of her cousin, an Iraq War veteran, and how those experiences play out inside a family and in the community. November 1–19, 2017.

Mojada: a Medea in Los Angeles, Portland Center Stage at the Armory: Luis Alfaro sets the tragedy of Euripides inside the Mexican immigrant community of Los Angeles and packs it with raw feeling and social commentary. November 4–26, 2017.

That’s just to get you started. To paraphrase philosopher and social critic John Dewey, the culture establishes the conditions for a free and democratic politics—or it doesn’t. As Dewey wrote, “political institutions are an effect, not a cause.” I think more and more artistic directors are taking responsibility for their contributions to the culture, for helping to amplify the ideas and feelings that are creative, regenerative for a democratic society.

And yes, that’s hard work. Cheers to those who undertake it! .

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